Al Jaffee is 89 years old. It is likely that you have seen his work, even if his name is unfamiliar to you. The 2008 Reuben Awards Cartoonist of the Year has been steadily contributing to MAD magazine for over half a century now, most notably as the creator of the MAD Fold-In, a regular feature on the inside back cover that delivers its interactive punchline when the page is folded over to reveal a hidden image. MAD fans will recall the acid wit that permeated his recurring Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions. Aficionados recognize his sophomoric humor and the precise draftsmanship with which he presented a long series of wild yet seemingly practical inventions. Jaffee has influenced and inspired generations of creative people.
That’s enough of a legacy to warrant a serious biography, yet it is the convoluted backstory of this innovative cartoonist that is the focus of Al Jaffee’s Mad Life, released last week by HarperCollins imprint ItBooks. More than two-thirds of Mary-Lou Weisman’s 226-page portrait elapses before Jaffee submits his first article to MAD, and the remainder places his professional achievements within the context of his haunting, inescapable past. For Weisman, the key to Jaffee’s success can be found by examining the tenacious self-reliance he developed during his earliest years.
When Jaffee was six, he and his three younger brothers were uprooted from their birthplace of Savannah, Georgia. Their mother, Mildred, told their father, Morris, that she wanted to visit relatives in her hometown of Zarasai, Lithuania. While Morris stayed behind as general manager of Blumenthal’s department store, Mildred spirited away the children to Zarasai, where they ended up staying for a year. Morris left the security of his job to bring the family back, only to return to America with them and face dire financial circumstances. Mildred stayed with the children in New York while Morris accepted a lower-paying position in North Carolina. A year later, Mildred took the boys back with her to Zarasai, and Morris became an absentee father. Jaffee would stay with his mother and brothers in Zarasai for the next four years.
The Lithuanian years were for Jaffee a strange mix of culture shock, maternal neglect, paternal abandonment, and eventual assimilation. Zarasai life was a throwback to an earlier era. Homes were lit primarily by kerosene lamps, dirt floors were not uncommon, and modern conveniences like indoor plumbing did not exist. Although Morris regularly sent money to help support the family, Mildred was more concerned with maintaining a state of religious piety; she would tend to the needs of beggars while ignoring those of her sons. It was not unusual for her to leave the boys by themselves, locking the door and providing a chamber pot, while she spent the day worshipping and performing acts of charity.
When Morris ultimately showed up in Zarasai in 1933 to claim the family once again, he was shocked to discover that their son Bernard had become deaf and mute after a bout with spinal meningitis, a tragedy that Mildred had never related to him. Moreover, even in the face of rising anti-Semitism and portents of a dark future in Lithuania, Mildred refused to return with her family to America. She would eventually disappear, most likely murdered in one of two mass killings that occurred in and near Zarasai in 1941.
Despite the grim misfortunes of Jaffee’s early life, Weisman’s biography is not a thoroughly depressing read. Much of this is due to the brilliant decision of having Jaffee, himself, illustrate his own life story. Jaffee’s lively and accessible style lends a universality to his renderings of childhood scenes. He and his brother Harry made the most of their underprivileged circumstances, using their ingenuity to transform whatever raw materials they could find into hand-crafted amusements. Jaffee fans will delight in cartoons illustrating the clever devices that Al and Harry fashioned to safely steal fruit, float down the river, and fish.
At the same time, Jaffee does not shrink from illustrating the darker moments. One cartoon depicts the rows of skeletons that were unearthed when Zarasai construction workers excavated a street, inadvertently digging up either an old cemetery or, as Jaffee believes, hastily buried victims of World War I. Another poignant illustration chronicles his heartbreaking departure from Lithuania. As father Morris looks on stoically, the Jaffee brothers press their faces to the window of their departing train, straining toward the distant gate where their frantic mother has arrived too late to wish them goodbye.
In many quoted recollections, Jaffee describes his self-perceived shortcomings with candor. He relates how an early and unsuccessful attempt at using defiant bravado to defeat a bully shaped his lifelong avoidance of confrontation. He shares regrets over not having been more attentive to his children rather than pursuing his own interests. Aware of how others might interpret the coolness with which he describes the loss of some family members, he unflinchingly explains the unsentimentality and survival instincts that have allowed him to stay focused on the future without dwelling on the past.
Readers are likely to come away inspired by this intimate look at a man whose uncontainable creativity has flourished throughout a long and complicated life. Now approaching his nineties, Jaffee still painstakingly labors over a new Fold-In for every issue of MAD. An exhibition of illustrations from Al Jaffee’s Mad Life as well as earlier works for MAD is now underway at New York’s Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (the inspired title for the endeavor: Is This the Al Jaffee Art Exhibit?). A forthcoming hardbound collection of his more than 400 Fold-Ins is slated for next spring. Whereas others would have been content to put away the ink pens and paintbrushes long ago, Jaffee seems unable to stop.
Weisman sees it all as the natural state of being for someone whose talent, imagination, and satiric wit have repeatedly defied his circumstances. “He is held aloft by his own determined good humor,” she observes, “and by the perpetual blast of hot air escaping from all the balloons of pomposity he has punctured over his lifetime.”
Al Jaffee has already given us his unique sense of humor. Al Jaffee’s Mad Life gives us the rest.
The essence of Jaffee: adolescent humor, ingenuity, and snappy answers.